He claimed to be the most powerful Black man in Europe. Michael de Freitas, better known as Michael X, was the founder of the Black Power Movement in the UK who fought for the rights of Black people, with support from celebrities including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. A hustler from Trinidad who could pass for White, the controversial Black revolutionary figure would have many guises.
Despite being described as a pimp and a gangster, Michael X played an important part in racial politics in Britain in the 1960s. And when he moved back to Trinidad, he started a commune and had dreams of becoming President until two bodies were found on his land. Here’s his story.
Born Michael de Freitas in 1933 in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad to a Barbadian mother and a Portuguese father, Michael X was very young when his father left the family. By 14, Michael X was working as a ship’s boy. At age 17, he docked in Cardiff, where he went on to work as a seaman while making money on the side as a pimp, according to The Telegraph. He later moved to London in his mid-20s and settled in Notting Hill, where he worked as a rent collector for the infamous landlord Peter Rachman, who rented property in Notting Hill at exorbitant prices.
A hustler and gambler, Michael X however became well known in his community as a man who would fight against White intimidation and oppression. Becoming friends with the writer Alexander Trocchi, Michael X also started writing poetry and starting earning acclaim in the Black community.
In 1965 when Malcolm X visited London for a talk, Michael X attended. He met with the African-American nationalist and religious leader and invited him to dinner. Not too long after Malcolm X left London, Michael X, inspired by the Muslim minister’s talk, disclosed that he was setting up a Black nationalist movement in Britain. It was also during this period that he adopted the name, Michael X.
Having founded a Black militant organization in London he called the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS), he hit the headlines in Britain as the figurehead of the Black Power movement. And as he associated with Malcolm X, he became interested in the Black Muslim movement, leading him to adopt another name – Abdul Malik. But fame went into his head.
In July 1967, Michael X was charged with hate speech under the 1965 Race Relations Act after giving a speech at Reading to a mixed group of people, saying “If you ever see a white man laying a hand on your black woman, kill him immediately.” He was jailed for eight months. While he was in jail, his RAAS lost members and it was disbanded in 1968.
Upon his release, he became leader of a Black Power commune on Holloway Road, North London, called the “Black House”. A hub for the disaffected Black youth, the Black House was mostly financed by a young millionaire benefactor, Nigel Samuel and was meant to have a restaurant, a supermarket, and a cultural centre. The Black House was opened at the same time as the British Black Panthers was formed to fight racism and police brutality. There were reports that Michael X exploited his revolutionary image to gain money to run the Black House.
In 1971, after a run-in with the law, Michael X fled to Trinidad, and the Black House closed. With dreams of becoming president in Trinidad, the self-styled revolutionary established a commune in Christina Gardens, Trinidad and created a “Black Liberation Army” there, according to BlackPast. Celebrities such as John Lennon visited the commune but a couple’s visit would spell doom for Michael X.
Gale Benson, a 27-year-old divorced British model and her lover, Hakim Jamal, a Black American revolutionary and a cousin of Malcolm X, visited the commune. After some weeks of staying in the commune, Benson was stabbed with a cutlass by followers of Michael X and buried on January 2, 1972.
Jamal had reportedly told Michael X days before Benson’s murder that he didn’t “look good” with a White woman at his side. “Benson was a passenger. She was sent off to raise money for the commune, but returned empty-handed. She had become disposable,” The Telegraph wrote.
Weeks after Benson’s murder, a local Trinidadian man named Joseph Skerritt was also killed. Apparently, Skerritt, a member of Michael X’s organization, had showed signs of turning against Michael X and so was murdered and also buried on the commune.
Benson’s body was not found for seven weeks. Those who asked about her were told that she had left. Her lover Jamal left the commune to the U.S. after her murder. And when the commune mysteriously burned down weeks after her murder, her body as well that of Skerritt was discovered by authorities. Michael X and four other men were charged with the murder.
But as The Telegraph reported, Michael X was already under sentence of death for the murder of Skerrit so he did not stand trial. On May 16, 1975, after a three-year trial, Michael X was hanged for the murder of Skerritt in the Royal Gaol in Port of Spain.
V. S. Naipaul, in his 1979 essay, “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad: Peace and Power” describes Michael X as a narcissist who was divorced from reality, UnHerd, which reviewed the essay, said. Naipaul presents the self-styled revolutionary as a man who was ready to kill to “fulfil his delusions”, according to the review by UnHerd.
In the film series, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World” cited by UnHerd, Michael X is seen to have organized the killing of Benson because he feared the upper-class White English woman would report him for growing and exporting marijuana to America.